Only weddings allowed at Horse Power Pavilion? Popular venue barred from holding most events

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Horse Power Pavilion, a popular event venue on State Road 20 that had been hosting car shows, concerts and benefits for the local library and other causes — all while offering food truck options, alcohol and other beverages — is now limited to only hosting weddings, which must be catered.

The curtailment is the result of an Oct. 20 hearing in front of Walton County Code Magistrate Hayward Dykes Jr., in which county code officials contended the venue and its owner, Kate Holland, had exceeded the limits of activities allowed on the site in a development order issued two years ago.

A crowd gathers at the Horse Power Pavilion in Freeport on a recent evening. Activities at the venue have been severely curtailed under a recent ruling from Walton County's code magistrate.

That development order, code officials contended, authorizes the use of the property only for weddings, a café, and a recreational vehicle park. But the concerts, car shows and other events have become regular features at the venue, and have continued despite letters, site inspections, and notices from the county to halt commercial activities.

Also problematic, county staffers told Dykes at the hearing, are a stage installed inside an open-air pavilion that had been listed in original plans as a venue for children, and a set of shipping containers from which alcohol and other beverages are served.

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But Holland has complained that county officials have failed to process the numerous permit applications she has filed for the venue, and that they continue to present her with lists of things that must be done on the property.

"It's never stopped," she said Friday. "They change the goalposts every single day."

A county code official countered at least part of Holland's assertion at the October hearing by telling Dykes that as long as there was an outstanding code violation on the property — as is the case with the departure from the development order — the county couldn't process any additional applications pertaining to uses of the tract.

Holland's attorney, Lisa Minshew, took the issue a step farther at the hearing, telling Dykes, "It sounds like they're (the county) trying to shut us down."

The Horse Power Pavilion in Freeport had been hosting car shows, concerts and other events until a recent ruling by Walton County's code magistrate that the business was operating beyond the bounds of a development order issued two years ago.

Minshew asked for an opportunity to sit down with county officials and staff to go through the process that the county wants her client to follow to bring Horse Power Pavilion in compliance with local regulations.

During the hearing, Minshew and Holland said repeatedly that the county was well aware of their plans to have crowds at the Horse Power Pavilion.

"It was all about the people that pay taxes here in the community being able to come and enjoy it, which is what everybody does," Holland said during brief testimony at the hearing.

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Her assertion of community support was backed up by dozens of people who packed the hearing room, many of whom offered testimony about enjoying the venue and criticized the county for subjecting Holland, who moved to the Freeport area from England with her husband and two children a few years ago, to what they saw as unnecessarily burdensome bureaucracy.

"What's being done to these people is a bunch of bull crap," said Duncan Crittenden, who has attended events at the site. "It needs to stop, and it needs to stop now."

Donna Johns, who also has visited Horse Power Pavilion, said at the hearing that what the county has been doing "is not code enforcement, this is harassment."

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In his ruling at the end of the nearly three-hour hearing, Dykes gave Holland 30 days to meet with the county to begin moving Horse Power Pavilion into compliance with regulations or to get the development order now applicable to the property amended to allow the broad range of uses contemplated by Holland.

In the interim, the only allowable use for the property will be as a wedding venue, Dykes ruled.

Dykes also set a Dec. 15 hearing for county code officials and Holland to return to give an update on the status of the use of the property and the effort to have the development order amended. It's also possible that at that time fines of as much as $250 per day could be imposed for any days the Horse Power Pavilion is used for anything but weddings. 

Holland said Friday that she had met with code officials on Thursday, but the only code staff member who could make any decisions was not available.

"How do we get out of a code violation if I can't get a permit?" she asked. 

"I feel like I'm cracking up," Holland added. "... It's like a bad dream."